Have you ever caught a Mountweazel? Before reading Eley Williams's beguiling first novel, I'd never heard of them. But Williams is an expert. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on them, and then she put her hard-earned knowledge to further good use in “The Liar's Dictionary,” which is to word lovers what potato chips are to my husband — minus the guilt.
What are these sly creatures? Mountweazels are fake entries deliberately inserted into dictionaries, encyclopedias, or other trustworthy reference works as traps to catch plagiarists and copyright infringements. As their name suggests, they are evasive and weaselly, distantly related to intentionally ambiguous or misleading weasel words. According to Wikipedia (which may well be filled with its fair share of Mountweazels), the term was coined by New Yorker writer Henry Alford in an article in which he flagged a copyright trap in the 1975 fourth edition of New Columbia Encyclopedia — a bogus entry about a photographer named Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who (in a dead giveaway) died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.
Not surprisingly, Mountweazels, whether set as traps or slipped in as hoaxes, are irresistible to lexographical sleuths and word nerds like Williams, who avidly ferret out these purposeful falsehoods. They play a key role in “The Liar's Dictionary,” which extends the fun of Ambrose Bierce's “Devil's Dictionary” and the game of Fictionary beyond fake definitions of real words to made-up words and definitions. More seriously, Williams's novel raises questions about the instability of language, how words gain currency, and whether fake words are any less real than actual words.
Williams made a splash with her first book, a linguistically inventive story collection originally published in 2017 in her native U.K. as “Attrib.,” coming to the U.S. this spring with the new title “When I Find I Cannot Kiss You.” Her novel again showcases a delight in language that evokes both Nabokov and — more on point with its mix of playfulness, profundity, warmth, and heart — Ali Smith.
“The Liar's Dictionary” belongs to a subgenre of historical fiction that toggles between two parallel narratives — set in the past and the present — which cleverly play off each other, unraveling mysteries and juxtaposing epiphanies in both strands. A.S. Byatt's Possession and Ali Smith's “How To Be Both” are two relevant examples.
Williams's contemporary character is a young woman named Mallory who is not quite at ease in her skin. For three years she has been working as a low-paid intern at Swansby's, a formerly impressive Victorian establishment which, at the turn of the last century, employed 100 lexicographers beavering away on “Swansby's Enclyclopaedic Dictionary.” Mallory is the sole employee of David Swansby, who is determined to put his family's never completed, multi-volume reference work online before closing up the family shop started in 1850 by his great-grandfather, Gerolf Swansby (a name which, Mallory opines, "always struck me as worth another round of spellchecking").
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Mallory's daunting, mind-numbing task is to check and update entries, to weed out Mountweazels, and to answer increasingly menacing calls from a man who is apoplectic about Swansby's new, gender-inclusive definition of marriage. On the day we meet her, there's a bomb threat. Her girlfriend, a barista named Pip, rushes supportively to the scene, unthinkingly outing self-conscious but appreciative Mallory.
Mallory's story alternates with that of Peter Winceworth, a socially uncomfortable lexicographer who, in 1899, has spent the past five years toiling in Swansby's Scrivenery Hall, "a bookish bullring with the acoustics of a basilica." Despite considerable verbal acuity, Winceworth, like Mallory, has trouble speaking up and asserting himself.
He has also been faking a lisp for most of his life, out of sheer boredom — which is increasingly inconvenient since he's been stuck working on the letter S for ages. Winceworth is seriously stuck in life, too. At a party thrown by a dashing but detested colleague, he drinks to near oblivion — but meets Sophia, a brilliant, mysterious, but dismayingly off-limits Russian chess aficionado who is so intoxicating that he forgets to lisp.
The often tongue-tied Winceworth rues language's lamentable gaps, and has a habit of fabricating words that might fill them. The day after his colleague's bash, he finds himself "vexing over why no word had been coined for the specific type of headache he was suffering."
“The Liar's Dictionary” is organized alphabetically, with each chapter headed by a word. Some are fairly straightforward, like B is for Bluff, D is for Dissembling, Q is for queer, but others are trickier neologisms, like the string of six letters in "K is for kelemonopy" or "M is for mendaciloquence."
The novel gets off to a somewhat slow start with a mockingly ponderous preface that, although amusing, did make me "relectoblivious" — that is, "accidentally rereading a phrase or line due to lack of focus." No such trouble focusing once the intertwining plotlines gain momentum in their increasingly intense pas de deux.
“The Liar's Dictionary,” "queasy with knowledge," is an audacious, idiosyncratic dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect, and about how far we'll go to save what we're passionate about. It's hard not to love a book in which even a broken lorgnette lens suffers a typographical crack — "a small asterisk shatter," never mind one that champions "winceworthliness, (n.), the value of idle pursuit," and puts a name on "agrupt, (adj.), the irritation caused by having a denouement ruined." I won't do that to you. Read this clever volume for yourself, from A to Z.
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